Michelia is a fragrant mountains of snow. Winter colour is one of the more demanding challenges that a gardener has to face. Probably one of gardening's best kept secrets is that it is possible to have quite a spectacular show of winter flowers of many forms.
These range from tiny treasures tucked in sheltered corners, a few hardy perennials, and a surprising number of varieties of shrubs right up to flowering trees.
One of the most spectacular flowering trees of the season is the Michelia (me-chel'-i-a). Michelia is native to sheltered mountain valleys of Western China, Tibet and the Eastern Himalayas.
Thus they prefer mild to warm climates with good air circulation, a constant supply of moisture and no severe freezes in mid to late winter when the buds are beginning to open. This makes them an ideal subject for many gardens in northern New Zealand.
They basically grow anywhere that would suit a magnolia grandiflora and in many respects Michelia is their winter-blooming counterpart.Michelias are handsome evergreen trees or large shrubs often mistaken for magnolia to which they are related.
Michelias often flower more prolifically with sometimes multiple blooms appearing from the leave axis rather than a single bloom at the branch tip as in most Magnolia species.
Michelia Doltsopa and languinosa have very fragrant white blooms up to 10cm. These are fully double with up to 18 petals smothered in a heavenly perfume. They are an old Oriental favourite often sold by street vendors in China and Hong Kong.
Buds are brown and covered with a velvety fur that slowly splits to reveal the creamy white rosebud that later opens into a flower closely resembling a water lily.
Variety "Silver Cloud" is a superb flowering form that is slightly more compact and much more free flowering from a very early age. Michelia x foggi is a hybrid cross on a smaller shrub to 3-4m. The blooms are creamy white with a carmine to purple margined edge.
The blooms never fully open out but remain as loose buds hugging the stems throughout the winter. The perfume on this variety is strongly fruity like the smell of sweet banana.
Another popular variety is Michelia figo, the Port Wine Magnolia. This is a fine evergreen shrub to 3-4m. with deep green, glossy leaves that closely resemble a sasangua camellia. In this variety the blooms are smaller at 3-4 cm. and are creamy yellow with a deep port wine flush at the petal margins and on the outside.
The fragrance is very strong and fruity. At one time the essential oil extracted from these blooms was used to flavour a popular chewing gum. This variety can start flowering in mid winter if the season is mild and will often continue well into summer.
This variety makes an excellent container or patio plant and prunes well as a hedge.The other varieties are better used a small specimen trees where their branches are allowed to spread out to sometimes 6m.
Don't panic, they are easily pruned after flowering to maintain their size. Michelias are easily grown in most well-draining garden soils that stay moderately moist and rich.
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